On Ray Bradbury

One time, Kiki and I were talking about neon tubes and the usual standard of using a piece of paper to judge if the tubing had reached the annealing temperature. And both of us recited 451 degrees Fahrenheit as the ignition temperature of paper, at which point Christian pointed out that it’s not an exact number as it depends on the paper, which is why you also want to use a thermocouple to make sure that the right temperature has been reached and that you generally want to anneal at more like 700 degrees or so.

Most of my Ray Bradbury readings were English class readings forced upon us by the teachers. I’ve always had a dim view of the sort of stuff that English classes require us to read, because they are born out of the snooty academic mindset of your average English major. One of my more amusing high school English teachers described the mindset as being a bunch of people who spent their lives studying Shakespeare but never turning out anything even a little bit as awesome as Shakespeare.

I’ve often felt that there’s a wide world of fiction worth studying that is dramatically different from the sort of fiction that stuffy English class teachers want to cover but touches on worthy points of discussion. The example I usually give is Neuromancer, by William Gibson, being both a capsule of the 80s and loaded with little intertextual treats that reward the careful reading.

I remember reading one of the stories from Dandelion Wine and thinking that it was wonderful text.. but wasn’t Ray Bradbury a Science Fiction writer?

But I was never forced to read Fahrenheit 451 in any of my classes; I read it for my own enjoyment.

My wife is Hindu, and one of the incidental religious precepts is a massive respect for the book. You do not step on a book or allow your foot to come in contact with a book. Books are sacred. And, over the years, I’ve found that without a religious precept to drive me in such a direction, book burning or book destruction holds a particular horror to me. I’ve always wanted to cut up a dictionary and make a secret book-safe, but I can’t do it. It would be like taking a knife to a cute little puppy. I would hear the book whimper at me as I did it.

Ray Bradbury claimed in his later years that Farenheit 451 was written not about an oppressive state that took over and burned books, but about a democratic society where we burned our own books and that all of the English teachers who forced junior high and high school students have it all wrong.

I don’t think there’s actually a difference.

There’s a story of a Polish town during World War II. When the German soldiers came, they found that they didn’t need to round up the jews and kill them because the villagers had done the job for them already. Normally, it behooves a fascist government to use outsiders. When China butchered their protesters in Tiananmen Square, they brought in soldiers from out of town, for example. Easier.

In this modern era, we’ve given names to things and established practices. We better understand the process that led a wounded country of normal people just like you and me to a country that systematically throws undesirable books and undesirable people into ovens. We can talk about Cognitive Dissonance and the exact process that leads one to do these things. This is, of course a “soft” science. There is not a logical AND gate that is turned into an OR gate with a correctly placed shock. We invent tools to describe the brain yet it’s very much a giant mystery.

We haven’t made much real progress in vaccinating people against being programmed to become fascist robots. I watch people who I know to be intelligent, some of them I even know are well aware of the science that is cognitive dissonance, who can be triggered into passionate fascism with a small trigger. And I listen to them and think about how they don’t even realize that they are drifting ever closer to being OK with shoving undesirables into ovens. And I know that, no matter how much passion or emotion or logic I try to speak with, there’s nothing that I can say to de-program them because I’ve tried to converse with them about these things and realized that it was going nowhere. This scares me. It’s easy to say “I don’t know why those idiot right wingers” in this situation, but it’s not just stupid people.

But it is the things that Ray Bradbury was warning us about.

Unlike Ray Bradbury, I do not think that you can simply blame television or the Internet or any of this other technology that we’ve created. You might as well judge a saw for being sharp or a plastic bag for choking you. We all were warned, even if an English teacher will try to turn Fahrenheit 451 into a drudgery. The iPod earbud that you wear while running so that you hear thumping techno instead of the sounds of a world around you was not forced into your ear by jack booted thugs, you put it there. The Everquest that you installed on your computer was something you purchased and installed. You not only purchased your car but made giant sacrifices to purchase it.

In Something Wicked This Way Comes, like the lightning rod salesman who unfreezes the Most Beautiful Woman In The World only to end up discovering that he freed the Dust Witch, becoming the Dwarf, and becoming bound to the carnival forever… well, I guess that’s the perfect metaphor.